The Monday Interview: Cotton picking task force

The manager of this year's Lions tour to South Africa is not a man who is afraid to speak his mind. Chris Hewett met him
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The Independent Online
Fran Cotton has been accused of many things in his time, but namby- pamby idealism is not among them. "There will be 46 of us in the Lions party against the whole of South Africa and it's going to get bloody lonely," he says, jabbing an all too realistic, sausage-sized forefinger into the middle distance for added impact.

"People will fold under the pressure - I've seen it happen before and it will probably happen this time, too - so unless we have enough strong characters with the necessary desire and attitude, the willingness to give everything of themselves in pursuit of victory, we won't win. We won't beat the Springboks. We will fail."

The Lions manager takes another sip of coffee, as if to wash the taste of those last few words from his mouth. And then he barks out a short, sharp laugh. "Mind you, we were even lonelier back in '74 because we had a Harold Wilson government who, in their wisdom, decreed that there would be no contact between the British embassy and the team. You can imagine how distraught the boys were at missing those God-awful cocktail parties."

If Cotton seems unusually restless in spirit, it is because he has fought tougher battles, taken harder knocks and brooded longer and more intently about his rugby over the last eight months than at any other time in his life; no mean pronouncement when you consider that he spent a decade as a pit pony in the England front row - correction, pit shirehorse in his case - and made it on to the plane for three successive Lions tours between 1974 and 1980.

Along with Ian McGeechan, Jim Telfer and a subsidiary team of selectors from the length and breadth of the four home unions, Cotton is now preparing to put his cards on the table. He will watch whatever there is left to watch of this weekend's club programme - the World Cup Sevens in Hong Kong has played merry hell with the British fixture list - and then retreat into closed session to sort and shuffle, mix and match, make do and mend. Like the rest of his management team, he will stand or fall by the 35 names he announces a fortnight tomorrow.

The process thus far has been exciting, exhausting, frustrating and controversial in equal measure and while he may originally have assumed that his problems would begin only when the team plane touched down at Jan Smuts Airport, he has long since recognised the error of his ways.

Public spats with England captains both past and present, the roundly condemned announcement of a 62-strong preliminary squad that omitted some very big names and a high-profile contribution to the political in-fighting that has bedevilled what should have been an exhilarating domestic season have left Frannie wondering whether his successful clothing company, Cotton Traders, might do better to forget all about manufacturing rugby shirts and branch into hair shirts instead.

We meet just outside Manchester in the spacious Cotton Traders boardroom: at least, it seems spacious until the formidable frame of England's greatest and most celebrated prop forward appears, at which point the walls seem to move inwards at an alarming rate of knots. From the instant he starts speaking, you know that Cotton has rarely, if ever, been as alive and committed to any venture, either sporting or commercial, as he is to beating the Springboks in June and July.

So, to begin with, why 62 in the interim squad? Why not 72 or 148? Why not save himself an awful lot of flak? "It was always meant to be a 60- man squad but a couple crept in because we couldn't agree as a selection panel that they should be left out. People seemed to get very angry about the timing of the announcement but everyone knew about it for weeks. Some players were, quite naturally, disappointed at not being involved, but if there are a few bruised egos out there, so what? We need mental hardness, players who are prepared to say, 'Right, I'll show you what I can do'."

One of the "uninvolved" turned out to be Phil de Glanville, the England captain, and his omission generated a real flap. When De Glanville made a pre-arranged address to members of the Cambridge Union shortly after the squad was made public, he was quoted as saying that he and Cotton were rather less than bosom pals. It was by some distance the low point of Cotton's managership to date. "It was emotive because of Phil's position as national skipper, but I think he recognises that what he said was a silly thing to get involved in. He dropped his guard, I suppose. From my point of view, I have no issue with him at all; apart from anything else, I don't know him well enough to say I don't like him as a person. I want an open and honest relationship with him. In fact, we've arranged to have lunch and I'm looking forward to that.

"People have to understand that this is very different from any Lions tour in history. People are being paid now and with so many commercial and contractual issues to go through, we would look idiots if we announced the team in April, only to find 20-odd agents saying, 'I don't like this, I don't like that'. It was best to get all these issues out of the way by picking a large preliminary squad and allowing the players to look at and understand the deal on offer."

Cotton readily accepts that the final whittling down will take time and admits quite openly that the options, or lack of them, at full-back, outside- half and, to a lesser extent, open-side flanker, are still giving him the horrors. "We've travelled thousands of miles watching all types of rugby over the last eight months and the selection process has been extremely difficult. To be honest with you, we've been through the full range of ups and downs; we started out with all due optimism, watched the pre-Christmas internationals and thought 'Bloody hell, this doesn't look too good' and then cheered up during the course of the Five Nations, which has been excellent. The England-France game was quality, a real contest, and I was reassured by a lot of what I saw."

There are many in the shires and backwaters of the English game who expect Cotton to stay in the limelight on his return from South Africa, to finish what he has started by playing a more influential role in the power games at Twickenham. Some consider him to be a natural England team manager, others suggest he might run for the chairmanship of the Rugby Football Union management board when Cliff Brittle, with whom he has formed a potent alliance, moves aside.

"It's quite ironic that I should be so involved, given that the RFU once banned me for 10 years for writing a book. Actually, that did me a big favour. I had no choice then but to devote my time and energy to developing my business interests rather than hanging round clubhouses trying to cling on to past glories.

"Quite honestly, I can't think what future role I might play apart from, possibly, team manager. I'm not a coach, I'm heavily involved in business and rather like Jack Rowell, I wouldn't want to spend all my time in rugby. I do care, though. Passionately. That's why I've played a part in all the politics of the last few months.

"The RFU have come up with some pretty poor strategies, haven't they? Look at the BSkyB broadcasting deal, which is not that great when you examine it clinically. We were told at last year's AGM that there would be no pay-per-view. Incorrect. There will be. We were told that Sky would have no input on scheduling. Incorrect. They will have. The other home countries have done a smarter deal for the greater good of the game by sticking with terrestrial television.

"It was very wrong of the RFU to sell its soul to Sky in a blind panic, a dash for cash. The committee showed astonishing naivety in thinking that the other unions would swallow England going off and selling a tournament that belonged to five countries. We caused a split when the one thing European rugby really needed was unity, and there is so much mistrust now as a result of what I can only describe as England's dishonesty."

In Cotton's forthright opinion, there are many other deeply questionable aspects of the RFU committee's recent performance and he is unshakeable in his determination to man the barricades against "any tightening up of their nice, cosy little world, leading to less and less accountability and an increasing disenfranchisement of the wider game". In short, he is prepared to stand up and be counted in the role of honest broker, knowing full well that he is far too honest for some people's liking.

But for the time being, South Africa and the manner of their defeat is priority number one. "This tour is so big down there in Johannesburg and Cape Town; the sheer scale of it is way above anything else in rugby, including the World Cup. Every major province wants a shot at the Lions which is why, in a condensed 13-match tour, the itinerary is so horrendously hard.

"When the All Blacks clinched their series against the Boks in Pretoria last summer, half a dozen of them were left lying on the floor at the final whistle, utterly unable to move a muscle; they were exhausted, flat out, absolutely knackered. And that was the biggest statement they could have made as regards what we are now attempting to do. We've thought carefully and planned meticulously; now we need the players we select to give, give, give. As I've said a hundred times before, anyone not prepared to do the necessary should not bother turning up at the airport. Only the tough need pack their suitcases."